By Connor Newman
What is a seed? Most people are familiar with the idea – put a seed in the ground, add water and a plant happens. This is true, but many are not aware of just how amazing seeds are. A seed is a perfect biologic package, consisting of a protective outer coat, “shelf stable” food storage and all of the genetic material needed for a mature plant. With ideal conditions, and only then, the seed coat will allow oxygen and water inside the seed and begin to germinate. Seeds can stay viable for a very long time, waiting for that ideal environment. Seeds have been found in the Siberian tundra, radiocarbon dated to 32,000 years old, and scientists were able to germinate them. So, if you’re not getting the moisture, light, and temperature right, you may be holding your breath for quite some time, waiting on results.
The food storage part of the seed, most often the endosperm, contains all of the fats, carbohydrates, and protein needed to sustain a seedling until it can photosynthesize its own food. The first leaves, or leaf – one for grasses (monocots) and two leaves for other plants (dicots) – to emerge act like solar panels, collecting the Sun’s energy. This is timed perfectly to coincide with the consumption of its initial food stores. Nothing wasted. From here, the “true” leaves take over and the world’s most energy efficient system is underway.
What makes for perfect conditions? The elements required – soil, air, light, and water – are pretty basic. Unfortunately, there is no “universal formula”, into which these elements can be plugged at a specific value, that works every time. There are rules of thumb – planting a seed at twice the measure of its width under the soil, or, watering deeply, but infrequently to promote root growth, among others – that will help gardeners get it right, most of the time. However, there are a few caveats. Planting a seed too deeply will cause it to use up its food stores too quickly and, just like people, a weakened plant is more susceptible to disease. Some seeds, plus many herbs, and vegetables in fact, actually need light to germinate, so too much cover will render poor results. Underwatering will cause the seed to dry out and wait for better conditions, or, if it has germinated, die altogether when nutrients can’t be transferred and cell structure can’t be maintained. Overwatering can bring about problems from mold – commonly referred to as “damping off disease” – and can “saturate” the soil, starving the young plant of oxygen.
How does anyone get anything to grow? One more good rule of thumb is to have your soil consist of about 25% air, 25% water, and 50% growing medium that is about 5-10% organic in nature. Beyond the basic “rules”, the only way to turn a thumb from black to green is to do your homework, gain experience (dirt time!), and recognize that nature is the best teacher of all. Too much information to keep up with? Read this article, as well as any other research you do, tomorrow at about the same time. Research shows that re-caps (yes, this is why TV shows do it) will help your brain form pathways to the information, so it can be retrieved when it’s needed.